Battlefield missile artillery from the blackpowder age to the 21st century - Part IV

The future role of the artillery

Reconnaissance drones and modern combat aircraft possess astonishing sensor capabilities, day and night, through fog or clouds or in clear skies. IR sensors that spot muzzle flashes of howitzers on several square kilometres simultaneously and radars which can detect, identify and during their movement also track individual vehicles are available. Radars can also distinguish between tracked and wheeled vehicles, which makes it easier to filter out the mostly higher priority tracked vehicles.

(Try to ignore the horrible speaker)

This astonishing wealth of sensor capabilities will be diminished by hardware and behaviour countermeasures, but it's still reasonable to expect a huge mismatch between the ability to detect targets and the air vehicle's ability to engage targets: Drones and modern combat aircraft rarely carry many munitions, and even miniaturized munitions which substitute direct hits for large warheads don't change this much.
An F-35 on station for 20 minutes could detect hundred of targets if a battalion battlegroup is on the move in the area - and it could engage about four.

This mismatch is being complemented by the artillery's improvement of effective ranges, particularly of the rocket artillery. Guided rockets have negligible dispersion (CEP less than 10 m) even at maximum range, and thus it makes sense to increase maximum ranges very much since no ever-worse dispersion makes this pointless any more.

Close air support historically had three major advantages over artillery:
(1) the ease with which it used very heavy warheads 
(2) the ability to shift the effort by hundreds of km within an hour or two
(3) bird's eye view

Nowadays and in the future rocket artillery matches this in regard to #1, almost so in regard to #2 and can maintain direct radio comm with air power or artillery's own aerial drones to match strength #3 in regard to munitions delivery choices.

The relationship between air power and artillery may thus largely revert to 1917's Artillerieflieger or artillery observer planes, which spotted the targets and radioed targeting messages to the artillery.

Artillery without a bird's eye view by combat aircraft or drone and without various kinds of electromagnetic reconnaissance aircraft for SAR, GMTI radar modes and triangulation of radio and radar emissions beyond the capabilities of ground-based sensors will be horribly outmatched in a conventional battle. A superior range would be irrelevant if coupled with such disadvantages and unnecessary if the opposing forces are that disadvantaged. Still, long ranges are nice to have.

Minimized dispersion and long range become relatively unimportant when the target detection fails and area targets need be shot at. An encircled brigade may be reduced to an area of woodland and villages with all open areas vacated due to the sensor threat. A pocket-busting effort may require lethal and will-breaking area fires on the woodland, for example. This may favour large thermobaric warhead rockets as used by TOS-1, and the range wouldn't need to be better than TOS-1's.

Artillery in mobile warfare on the other hand needs to keep things simple, and preferably be able to maintain its reconnaissance efforts (artillery radar, control of drones, processing of drone sensor data) on the move. It also needs to be able to evade superior ground forces on very short notice or to defend itself.
Furthermore, mobile warfare can be expected to cause resupply challenges. The arrival of ammunitions supply trucks will usually happen only every 2nd day, but may not happen for four days in a row. The ability to carry the needed ammunitions with the manoeuvre force is important, and this may be hundreds of missiles per MRL. It's thus important to make efficient use of a heavy lorry's flat bed. This favours howitzers over rockets because of the much smaller mass and volume of the propellant, but it also places much emphasis on optimising the choice of rocket calibre. One and the same MRL may be required to make use of very different rocket calibres.

122 mm Grad-P single tube
artillery rocket launcher (c)Bukvoed
Rocket artillery -particularly with guided rockets- may also be called upon to compensate for survivability issues of mortars and weight and cost of system issues of self-propelled howitzers. 122 mm rocket launchers on tripod exist; they were meant for guerillas. Lightweight MRLs can use a SUV or 2 ton lorry as vehicle, and still easily substitute for a 120 mm mortar in range and effect, save for short range or mountainous terrain shots (that would require an expensive guidance to bend the rocket's trajectory). Guided munitions might still be tracked by opposing forces' counter-artillery/mortar radars, but the extrapolation of the shot's origin would be unreliable because of the trajectory manipulation by the guidance. This can be used by guided mortar rounds as well, but mortars fire in the upper elevation group (above 45°), so their projectiles have little time to fake their origin compared to a rocket fired at low elevation.

A MRL could also be used to temporarily bolster area or point air defences by loading surface-to-air missiles such as IRIS-T-SL, MICA VL, CAMM which require little radar support for their employment. In extreme cases a MICA VL-like rocket could be launched with nothing but a datalink-provided firing solution from an AEW&C aircraft 200 km away or a passive infrared sensor sighting of a target.

Rocket artillery has gained in versatility, and individual reloading or manipulation of rockets may make more sense than previously. The majority of munitions may still be delivered as standardized transport packages, but a single expended rocket fired at a point target may in the future be replaced by hand with another rocket to solve the dilemma whether to load a new package or not. Packaged might also be mixed this way, by adding a few PGM munitions to an area effect package. Manual reloading is only possible up to a certain weight, of course.
That is, unless rockets become semi-fixed, with propulsion section and warhead/guidance section separable. Tails might even be delivered in ready-to shoot transport containers, with noses transported in the fashion of  howitzer shell. The artillerymen could then screw the appropriate noses on. A battery train might carry 1,000 noses and a mere 800 tails, for example. This way they would need to carry less ammunition mass and weight, for carrying 100 AT minescattering rounds too many would merely mean to carry 100 nose sections, not 100 complete rockets too many.
Semi-fixed ammunition and a separation of warheads and propellant in the supply system are common for howitzers and nothing very exotic. It's just not commonplace with rocket artillery.

Corps-level rocket artillery may turn towards missiles like ATACMS, Iskander, LORA - capable of replacing guided bomb strikes in up to 300-400 km depth.

Finally, it's perfectly possible that MRLs will make use of quite primitive missiles such as smoke rockets without any form of trajectory correction. Smoke is very ammunition-efficient compared to suppressive or even destructive fires, and can be used with little risk of causing civilian or friendly casualties. Smoke munitions have likely been neglected in the past. They are in use and multispectral smoke that blocks thermal vision has been developed and introduced, but the share of smoke rounds in the national ammunition stocks may be much smaller than optimum.

Typical artillery smoke agent (the other typical one is the more hazardous WP).


Valkiri Mk. I
MLRS' approach of using a tracked vehicle for a long range MRL is highly questionable on cost and radar signature grounds. The Valkiri's approach of using a truck that looks like a regular supply truck (tarpaulin over the launcher) is more promising for most purposes. A future MRL could use a standard medium or heavy truck as vehicle, with a folding container. The limited off-road capability of a 8x8 truck with the by now ordinary CTIS would suffice. This would be particularly favourable for a corps-level artillery unit: Survival would depend on deception and after firing a dash to concealment (long-range aerial radars cannot look behind steep hills, buildings) for reloading.

Ray Ting 2000
The other extreme could be TOS-1-like (based on a medium or heavy tracked AFV chassis), but with compatibility for a wide range of missiles: Short range heavy warhead rockets, medium range area effect rockets with cheap means of dispersion reduction and finally precision missiles and anti-radar missiles of about 100 km range. A manoeuvre brigade with such MRL support could use it as main effort firepower and against high value targets (such as area air defence radars) in a very large radius.


The rockets

An extension of the range by gliding is possible and probably suitable against stationary targets, but the relative slowness in flight compared to a fully ballistic shot makes glide munitions less suitable against fleeting or otherwise mobile targets. Boeing's experimental use of a Small Diameter (Glide) Bomb on a MLRS rocket is an example for this and a most obvious pointer at the substitution relationship between bombs carried on combat aircraft and rocket artillery munitions. A once planned employment of multiple SDBs in an ATACMS rocket was another example.

The sensor threat may make some radar and infrared stealth details worthwhile. This may range from paints over fin design (or exclusive spin stabilization) to low signature propellants.

MRL may also be called upon to deploy rockets which in turn deploy a sensor drone. This way a MRL unit may first launch its own eyes into the sky and then follow up with lethal fires on detected targets. An added benefit is that this drone may also serve for BDA after the strike and potentially could stay effective for a long time intermittently if it can collect energy (with photovoltaic cells, for example).
Such sensor submunitions were under development (I'm not sure if ever introduced into service), but the one-time use characteristic creates a cost-efficiency challenge.

A long-term possibility is the deployment of small killer drone submunitions which infest entire landscapes and hunt for individual soldiers or engage vulnerable components on vehicles and heavy weapons.

The original idea behind precision guided munitions was to hit very difficult-to-hits targets, but soon thereafter the idea that PGMs reduce the necessary ammunition supply quantity arose. This proved to be about as accurate as the paperless office; the ability to hit previously not worthwhile targets increased the quantity of promising targets by orders of magnitude, and thus PGMs should be considered quantity production items just as are the 'dumb' munitions. PGMs are nevertheless rather rare because of their higher cost, which points at the most obvious challenge for future artillery rockets: Affordable PGMs. A simple guidance kit could be reduced in price to less than a thousand Euros, and the arrival of such affordable PGMs may turn into a greater revolution than the introduction of the original few PGMs.

There were more than three decades of experiments with hypersonic rockets (Mach 5 and above, even at low altitudes). This may eventually create some useful products. Hypersonic artillery rockets could deal with time-critical ground targets very well, maybe even quicker than a bomb dropped from 15,000 ft and certainly quicker than a full calibre howitzer shell. The great expense of the rocket fuel would only be justified if the hypersonic missile has a high probability of hit and a 'good' effect on the target.

The organization and training

Old delineations may disappear. A single multiple rocket launcher may be capable of launching area fires rockets, pinpoint accuracy rockets, scatterable AT mines, coastal defence anti-ship missiles, anti-air missiles, anti-radar missiles, heavy thermobaric short range rockets, rockets with sensor drones and bomb strike-replacing bridge and bunker buster missiles.
Such a range of roles would require a different training and a different organizational (and radio net) integration. This in turn may provoke bureaucratic resistance and reveal lock-ins that prevent any such versatility.
The firing rocket artillery may stay in a mere service supplier role or it may re-integrate the targeting and reconnaissance function as once expected by Gudmundssson (possibly through drones, though).

The separation of tube and rocket artillery may become less purposeful in the future, as they become more alike: Rocket artillery may adopt semi-fixed rockets akin to howitzer ammunition, both rocket and gun artillery are capable of area and precision fires and have overlapping effective ranges. Rocket artillery may have a wider choice of payloads (because of the gentler acceleration which makes it easier to use electronics), but this is not for sure. Both SPGs and MRLs will likely shoot & scoot with individual vehicles, be in the same radio (datalink) nets, work with the same forward observers and even use the same basic vehicles.
A "battery" could very well be a mixed one, particularly if it supports a small force.
An extreme possibility is to screw shells as noses onto solid fuel rockets, but the Israelis thought along these lines when they developed LAR-160 and gave it up early on. Shells have unnecessarily strong walls to resist the greater acceleration during a howitzer shot.

The dependency of rocket artillery (other than TOS-1-like systems) on radio communication is extreme, and this is an Achilles heel shared with much else of modern land forces. Yet artillery has at least at times the privilege of staying 'behind', where possibly fibre optic cables can be used to hide and harden data transfers. This could lead to very node-centric behaviour, with artillery components staying close to fibreoptic nodes to maintain reliable short range radio connections with longer-range fibre-optic connections. This could lead to clustering, possibly in proximity to other support units such as workshops, HQs, supply trains, field hospitals, area air defence batteries et cetera. This could also shift the emphasis from supportive fires for manoeuvre elements (unable to maintain fibre optic connection) to corps-level fires on electronically detected targets - which means that manoeuvre element-accompanying rocket artillery should not be allowed to stick to fibre-optic nodes at all.

Some countries like Germany have created joint forward observers who are responsible for mortar, howitzer, rocket artillery, rotary and fixed wing combat aviation fire support and for situation reports to some HQ (or directly into a software). Such observers are a far cry from an artillery battery's captain going forward to direct his and other batteries' fires himself. It shows how artillery has increasingly lost the forward observer role and become a firepower servant. Radars and other sensors of the reconnoitring artillery (Aufklärende Artillerie, organizational solutions differ among countries) may become increasingly detached from the artillery as well, since their results are relevant for the other arms, too. Radars are relevant for C-RAM efforts and battlefield air defences, for example.
The rich variety of the Cold War artillery may actually degenerate into 100% munitions launchers - it depends on the organizational choices to be made by the different army bureaucracies. History shows that there's usually a lot of variation between countries in such matters.

Future training of infantrymen should incorporate very much survivability training, and this includes not only countermeasures to sensors and counterfires, but also security efforts 360° and 24/7, on the move, in bivouac and in firing or reloading positions. It's a common sight in military history documents that veteran officers complain about the lack of infantry combat and security training of rear area troops, including artillerymen. It's safe to expect shortcomings in this area whenever an army hasn't been thoroughly challenged for a while. The Americans received their lessons in Korea and less so in Vietnam, for example - and have lost them long ago. Checkpoint duties in Iraq don't substitute for training against a surprise attack by an armoured reconnaissance platoon. The German army didn't get any such wake-up calls in decades.

- - - - -

I suppose there are many delayed reforms in the waiting. Reforms whose promise is easy to see, but which weren't done due to bureaucratic inertia, long equipment life cycles, limited budgets, moderate interest in 'conventional warfare' weapon systems (especially in Germany, where MARS/MLRS almost disappeared for want of available munitions after the cluster munitions ban).
The army bureaucracies are particularly slow to react to the cluster munitions ban, sticking to now-suboptimal calibres. The potential of PGMs hasn't been exploited either, in part because development programs led to many hardly optimal solutions and many existing stocks of rockets weren't upgradeable for want of a modular approach.

very much later Part V: What I forgot so far


edit 2015: The Chinese NORINCO Type 90 MRL appears to be able to conceal its true nature and look like a normal military cargo truck as well.

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